Renovation tips from Scarlett Gowing’s 142-year-old seaside mansion

·7-min read
Photo credit: Paul Raeside
Photo credit: Paul Raeside

Although it is considered by some to be a bit fusty and traditional, there’s a lot to be admired about Victorian design. A period where arts and crafts flourished, the era produced the original maximalists, renegade creatives who favoured the romantic and eclectic, and who weren’t afraid to mash up historic styles. They really knew how to do all things decorative.

Built in 1879, this magnificent 12-bedroom mansion in St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex has all the commanding characteristics in keeping with the period, but there’s something different going on here. Any hint of Victorian stuff iness is countered with streamlined, contemporary design.

This transformation is the work of its owner, Sydney-born interior designer Scarlett Gowing, whose passion for restoration and decoration has grown into a full-blown affair. ‘Once you start renovating and turning a building into something you love, it can be quite addictive,’ she admits.

Photo credit: paul raeside
Photo credit: paul raeside

‘What I like about Victorian properties is the space,’ continues Scarlett, explaining what first attracted her to this giant project of a home. ‘I love the height. The proportions are just fantastic.’ Having grown up in Australia, she is naturally drawn to large, open spaces. ‘These rooms have a sense of freedom.’

When it came to turning the near-derelict property into somewhere for her and her husband, Josh Holliday, who runs his own digital agency, as well as their two sons, Orlando and Arlo, and Onyx the Border collie to call home, however, she faced quite the challenge.

Grade II listed, the mansion came with restrictions in place about what work could be done. It had endured several incarnations over the years – a convalescent home, language school and a drug rehabilitation centre – and with that had lost any semblance of the family abode it once was. ‘The house had lost its soul,’ says Scarlett. ‘All the stained glass was broken and boarded over, and a lot of the internal doors had been bricked up to create smaller rooms. We used the original floor plan to bring it back to life.’

Photo credit: paul raeside
Photo credit: paul raeside

The garden also needed an overhaul. ‘It was completely overgrown, so we started from scratch,’ says Scarlett. She divided the three-quarters-of-an-acre plot into sections, adding a tropical garden, formal topiary and a bed of tulips and roses. ‘They give the most amazing show of flowers,’ she says. ‘I’m a novice at gardening, but it’s been exciting to take creative ideas outside.’

Inside the property, Scarlett got to work by ripping up the institutional carpet and sanding back the floorboards. The remaining stained glass, fireplace tiles and wood panelling gave her a lot to work with. ‘All of the gothic Victoriana needed to be balanced out,’ explains Scarlett of her main intention with the design.

The huge rooms required large statement pieces to fill them, and with these she has introduced rounded shapes, light-catching materials and tactile surfaces to keep the overall effect feeling intimate.

Photo credit: Paul Raeside
Photo credit: Paul Raeside

‘Having the challenge of updating a property with restrictions is actually quite good for a designer – you have to work with them,’ says Scarlett. ‘There is a lot of wood panelling here, so it was about softening those elements to make it less domineering.’

In the vast entrance hall, a bespoke CC-Tapis rug breaks up the parquet flooring, while a ‘Pumpkin’ sofa by Pierre Paulin for Ligne Roset adds some contemporary curves. ‘I’m not super-feminine in my design,’ adds Scarlett, ‘but I do like things that are gentle and simple – with a confident punch.’

A case in point is the study, where Kelly Wearstler’s ‘Graffito’ wallpaper is paired with a large 1950s George Nelson pendant light. ‘It is enormous,’ says Scarlett. ‘It’s about 90 centimetres wide, but because of the scale of the room, everything has to be upsized or it gets lost. The house can carry these standout designs. They are strong but pick up on the lighter elements, such as the pastel colours of the stained glass. It just works.’

But how do you judge scale when you are working with such momentous proportions? In the hallway and gallery, Scarlett’s approach was always to go unapologetically big and bold. ‘Dinky doesn’t work here,’ she laughs. One example is the pair of custom-made gold lights that hang above the dramatic winding staircase like fabulous pieces of jewellery. ‘I wanted something organic and floating to counter the panelled ceiling as,’ she acknowledges, ‘there is a lot going on.’

Downstairs, this central hallway separates the living room, a small dining area and a sunny kitchen – a 1960s addition to the property from its residential care home days. With its curved counters and textural Japanese washi wallpaper, this mid-century extension is the ultimate example of how to contrast period features with high-end contemporary design. Given all the ornate woodwork in the surrounding rooms, the simplicity of this space is a refreshing counterbalance.

Photo credit: paul raeside
Photo credit: paul raeside

Having moved from a career in fashion to interiors, Scarlett has a keenly developed knack for sourcing exceptional vintage pieces, alongside creating textiles. Instead of making dresses, she now produces curtains and cushions – some of which are evident throughout this home. Her method is all very hands-on and tactile, especially in the luxurious main bedroom suite, which features an elevated freestanding bathtub overlooking the garden. Here, cosy bronze velvets and touches of gold coordinate with the Cristina Celestino pastel carpet of the adjoining dressing room. There is also an elegant mirror, one of Scarlett’s own creations and due to launch as part of a debut product collection soon.

‘I design items that are close to my heart,’ she says of the mirror and the plastered pendant lights that bring a modern feel to the living room. ‘In producing things for my own house, the collection has evolved.’

Like every good interior redecoration, there has been an element of piecing together and working things out as you go along to this two-year labour of love. But, when you have a majestic space like this to play with, there is plenty of freedom to create.

5 things to consider before you renovate

Project completed, Scarlett shares the pointers that made it all possible…

Photo credit: paul raeside
Photo credit: paul raeside

1. With listed properties, open a dialogue with your conservation officer early on. The rooms in the house had been sliced and diced over many years. Sourcing the original floor plans helped us show the building’s intended use as a private residence and
aided our planning application.

2. Work with your home’s architectural features rather than against them. I drew inspiration from the stained glass in the wooden hallway, and created a scheme in soft, complementary tones.

3. Renovation plans demand good budget keeping. Leave room for hidden costs. Working at speed will often incur additional expenses with contractors. Going at a slower pace will give you more time to consider and refine your project as you go. Any work you can take on yourself is an additional bonus.

4. Try to understand the renovation as a whole. Although I was excited about transforming the hallway early on because of its dramatic possibilities,
I left it until the end. With so many tools and people passing through the space, it would have been a disaster waiting to happen. If delaying isn’t possible, make sure you use waterproof sheeting to protect completed rooms.

5. Plan and start your garden early on as it will take time to evolve. Our garden had been left for over 50 years, so there was a lot of clearance work to do before we could even start creating. Three years on and it’s finally starting to fill out and come into its own. Enjoy the journey!

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